Dinner Theater

At Chef's Palette restaurant, staring is not rude. It's part of the appeal. Across the street from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, in the center of its culinary-school annex, is a lovely little dining room with white linen on the tables and a panoramic view of tomorrow's chefs learning the ropes.

Glass-walled kitchens line three sides of the 13-table establishment, and customers feasting on gourmet lunches or dinners are expected to gawk. "You know how the buzzword is 'interactive?'" asks culinary arts chairman and chef Richard Willis. "It's interactive," he says of the dining experience.

Like other instructors in the kitchen-classrooms, Willis is distinguished by his tall, pleated chef's hat and white chef's coat decorated with red trim. Students wear floppy hats and plain white garb.

During a lunch rush, student chefs congregate around shiny steel tables in the Skills Kitchen. Working with red peppers and garlic, they're honing their knife skills by slicing the food items into bite-size pieces. The culinary program takes a year and a half, a total of six quarters, to complete. Today's students are in their first quarter. If they were fourth-quarter students, they'd probably be doing something a little less basic, like learning the techniques of the garde manger, the French term for the cool pantry area where cold food-decorations -- like garnishes, butter sculptures, fruit sculptures -- are prepared.

Michael Hanford, age 24, says he enjoys having people watch him carve vegetables into garnishes, such as palm trees made out of peppers and carrots, or bite-size carrot tulips, which today are being popped into salads. "You get to show off how you do things," he says.

Meanwhile, in the nearby E La Carte Kitchen, fifth-quarter students wearing uniforms accessorized with knotted neck scarfs are preparing the food served in the dining room, which is open four days a week for lunch and dinner. Evening diners can take in the action in the Baking and Pastry Kitchen, where third-quarter students whip up deserts and breads, make sorbets and ice cream, add decorative flourishes to cakes, create white-chocolate confections, and top fruit tarts with kiwi and strawberries.

Some students claim that they're so focused on their work, they don't pay attention to who's watching from the dining room. "We don't feel you guys when you watch us, until afterward, when we look up and a bunch of people are looking," says Santiago Gotay, age 32.

George Koymarianos, age 24, says the glass walls make him feel a bit like a performer. "It's a little more exciting when someone's watching," he says while preparing a three-bean salad, Moroccan lentil soup, and Yankee baked beans. "It feels good because people are interested in what you're doing."

Alice Ferris of Fort Lauderdale brought her grandniece, who's visiting from Princeton University, to Chef's Palette for lunch. Ferris says she's a regular customer and enjoys not only the food but also the action in the bright, tidy kitchens. "You can see the cleanliness," she says.

All of the chopping, mixing, baking, and sauteing make for quite a spectacle, bringing new meaning to the term "dinner theater." In fact, during the more relaxed dinner hour, when patrons don't have to eat and run, they tend to linger and watch more intently, says restaurant manager Paul Scheel.

Sometimes, he says, they even carry the theater analogy to the extreme. Patrons occasionally stand up and break into a round of applause for the staff. At such moments the supervising chef smiles and directs his tidily uniformed students to take a bow.

-- Patti Roth

Chef's Palette, 1650 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale, is open Tuesday through Friday. Lunch ($7.50-$10) is served from noon to 1:45 p.m. and dinner ($13.95-$20.95) is available from 6:30 to 9 p.m. For reservations and information, call 954-760-7957.

 
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